Feb 21, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Endangered jazz history faces greater risk with the pandemic

American jazz singer Billie Holiday is shown performing at the Club Downbeat in Manhattan in February 1947.

Billie Holiday performs at the Club Downbeat in Manhattan in February 1947. Photo: William Gottlieb/Redferns via Getty Imagese

Musicians, artists, and fans are racing to save the nation's jazz history as historic clubs face closure and master tapes of crucial recordings by African American artists sit collecting dust.

Why it matters: The pandemic has wrecked an already vulnerable jazz industry by forcing live music shows to halt. Musicians and club owners have turned to online fundraisers for survival, and point to the music's connection to civil rights as a need to keep its legacy alive. 

Driving the news: Owners of the historic Washington, D.C. jazz club Blues Alley, a venue that once hosted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz, announced this month that the club is up for sale and likely won't reopen at its original Georgetown site.

  • Birdland Jazz Club, located in the heart of Manhattan and modeled after the original club named after bebop legend Charlie "Bird" Parker, recently held an online fundraiser to keep it from closing permanently.
  • New York's Jazz Standard and the Blue Whale in Los Angeles announced they were permanently closing because of the loss of business from COVID-19.
  • Other well-known jazz venues from Baltimore to Seattle have been closed since the pandemic began, placing their futures in peril.

The details: Jazz nonprofits have shut down many of their educational programs for children because of the pandemic.

What they're saying: "There is so much weight that these places carry and so much history that happened between the walls of these places. To see them at risk and disappearing ... it just shakes you to your core," Matt Block, co-founder of la reserve records, told Axios.

  • "We’re talking about living in a world (where) my great-nieces and nephews (know) less or nothing about saxophonist Ben Webster or bassist Esperanza Spalding," said poet Rodney Leonard, whose new book "Sweetgum and Lightning" fuses jazz and autobiography.
  • "Jazz is African American genius. And in a world that wants us to believe that we in contributed nothing, jazz music is something that we can hold up and say, 'we made this,'" Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks told Axios. She wrote the screenplay for the upcoming Hulu film, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday."

La reserve records and Canada-based Cellar Music Group’s imprint Reel to Real are doing their part to save jazz history by releasing previously forgotten live recordings by notable artists.

  • The labels recently released a performance by the George Coleman Quintet recorded at the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore on May 23, 1971.
  • Another upcoming project involves saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin performing at Seattle’s Penthouse jazz club in 1962.

Flashback: "It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by jazz musicians," Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in the opening address to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival.

  • "Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls."

The intrigue: Hip hop artists, poets, and filmmakers are working to keep jazz alive through their own art.

  • Hulu on Feb. 26, will release Lee Daniels' biopic, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," starring R&B artist Andra Day as the jazz icon who battled addiction and FBI harassment.
  • Parks said it was important for audiences to know what Holiday faced for performing "Strange Fruit" — a gripping song about the lynching of Black men.
  • "If we weren't so dismissive of the powers and achievements of women, we would have given her a little more space to tell her story a long time ago," Parks said. "We're just getting around to it now."
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